Recycling R.I.P.: County wants to dump losing program

For nine years, Albemarle County has made recycling easy: Residents toss glass, plastic, and aluminum into one clear plastic bag, and trash haulers pick it up.

But no longer.

Looking down the barrel of a $1 million shortfall, the county is scrapping the curbside recycling program in the proposed $216 million budget. And if the Board of Supervisors approves it, county greens will have to haul their wine and Evian bottles to McIntire Road Recycling Center or toss them into the garbage.

"We're still very committed to recycling," says county spokeswoman Lee Catlin, "but for now we have to suspend curbside recycling."

Why? Because the costs have "skyrocketed" Catlin says, and "the subsidy just keeps growing." Dropping curbside recycling will save the county $100,000 a year. This decision doesn't include newsprint (contrary to the implication in the accompanying cartoon), she adds, which will continue to be picked up.

When first introduced in 1993, the county's curbside program required all trash haulers to pick up recycling, and then subsidized the program by paying Coiners' Scrap Iron and Metal to sort the commingled materials. Three years ago it cost the county $50 a ton. Now it's $150 a ton, and the price is expected to go up.

"That fee continues to increase," says Preston Coiner. "There's a lot of trash thrown in with recyclables, and the markets for plastic and glass have crashed. Green and brown glass have negative value," says Coiner, with freight costing more than the goods are worth.

If no buyer came forward, which was "often," according to a county report, as much as one-third of the sorted materials ended up in the landfill with the garbage. What will dropping the program mean?

"I don't think it will have a substantial impact on recycling," says Catlin. "We urge people to take steps to recycle without the curbside program."

"Of course it has an impact," counters John Hermsmeier at the Environmental Education Center. "What if you made voting harder?"

He wonders if a fragile elderly person will be able to haul recyclables to McIntire. And Hermsmeier cites the "emotional impact" to people used to recycling. "That's frustrating, and demoralizing," he says.

About a year ago, the McIntire Recycling Center was about to drop its collection of glass, plastics, phone books, and textiles because of rising costs. A public outcry convinced Rivanna Solid Waste Authority to continue collecting those materials, with Charlottesville and Albemarle County chipping in to cover the authority's $1.2 million deficit incurred by the program.

This year, RSWA is looking at a $2.6 million deficit that once again could put McIntire Recycling in peril. Is recycling here doomed?

"This community loves recycling," says authority director Larry Tropea. Unfortunately, he notes, "There's no market for the materials we love to recycle. It becomes a cost, not a profit center. That makes local government decide whether to pay for it."

Mike Dixon at Dixon's Trash Disposal and Recycling Service feels like he's been forced to subsidize the county's curbside recycling since it began.

"It was always promoted as free," he says, "but there's so much cost involved." Dixon estimates his company loses between $2,500 and $3,000 a month doing curbside recycling.

"I was planning on raising rates in June," he says. If the county drops the program, that won't be necessary.

The Board of Supervisors is holding work sessions on the budget on March 26. A public hearing will be held April 9 before the board votes on the budget April 16.

Supervisor Sally Thomas says she's "distressed" that the program has to go, but the reality is, "We pay a lot of money to have that stuff land-filled."

In fact, the blue-bag program is so costly the county may stop it before the current fiscal year ends June 30.

The county's funding for Rivanna Solid Waste Authority is also in trouble, according to Thomas, with almost $1 million going to the Authority but without the counterbalancing revenues that used to come from tipping fees at the landfill.

Thomas is proposing a one-cent increase to the county's 77-cent per $100 tax rate that would generate $857,000 to go to the way Albemarle deals with its trash. "If we don't dedicate one penny, we'll be taking that money from other programs like teachers' salaries," she says.

And the odds on a one-cent tax increase passing? "Pretty bad," replies Thomas.

Avid recycler Marilyn Berard worries about the recyclables filling up landfills, and she believes county government's role is clear. "I think they should encourage recycling," she says. "They seem more concerned about money than the future."

Are Albemarle citizens willing to put their money where their environmentally correct mouths are, and pay to recycle?

"A community expresses what's important to them when spending money," says Hermsmeier. "It's a values-clarifying moment."